Building bridges: Student-veterans, Islamic Center connect

When news broke in March that the Islamic Center of Fort Collins had been vandalized, the worst fears of student-veterans on the Colorado State University campus were realized: The alleged perpetrator, though not a CSU student, was a veteran.

“We wanted to do something to let the people at the Islamic Center know that we supported them,” said Josh Hayes, former president of CSU’s Student-Veteran Organization. “We wanted them to know that veterans support them.”

It started with a letter

Hayes and members of SVO and CSU’s American Legion Post 1879 penned a letter of support and sent it to Tawfik Aboellail, president of the Islamic Center. Aboellail, an assistant professor of microbiology, immunology and pathology at CSU, was so impressed that he asked to post the letter on the Islamic Center’s Facebook page.

“The letter almost brought me to tears,” Aboellail said. “It broke any sense of feeling that our servicemen hated us. We found these veterans to be real heroes – patriots.

“It was beautiful…just beautiful.”

Building bonds

The letter not only provided healing at a dark time, it led to a friendship that outsiders might find surprising.

Aboellail and members of the Muslim community invited members of Post 1979 – one of a handful of campus American Legion Posts nationally – and CSU’s SVO to the Islamic Center’s open house. Several veterans and members of the women’s auxiliary attended.

“It was a great opportunity for community outreach,” said Orin Vance, the Post commander and engineering student at CSU who served 20 years in the Navy. “We had no idea what to expect, but the folks at the Islamic Center were very welcoming and gracious. They had a question and answer period about the center, and a very nice dinner – really a great event.”

Promoting healing

Raleigh Heekin, who retired from the Army after serving in several areas – Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq – where most residents are Muslim, said he wanted to promote healing following the vandalism.

“My personal experience with the people in all three areas I served was they were always welcoming and extremely courteous,” said Heekin, studying social work at CSU. “My unit was on a clearing mission outside of Ramadi, Iraq; we raided houses for four days, and at the end of every day we hunkered down for the night in a different house. Every house we stayed at made us feel like guests, and made us a feast. They would feed us the best food they had.

“I was a little intimidated walking into the Islamic Center, especially after the vandalism, but we were treated like guests.”

Memorable exchange

Post 1879 returned the favor a few weeks later, inviting Aboellail and others from the Islamic Center to a barbecue at Christ United Methodist Church in Fort Collins, which has offered space for the Post’s meetings. Even though Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, had begun, Aboellail and five others attended – and shared a delightful Middle Eastern dessert, kunafa, which was devoured in minutes by non-Muslim attendees.

“When the center was vandalized, we were angry and living in fear,” Aboellail said. “I didn’t know what to say to my congregation to make them feel safe. There were so many emotions.

“Honestly, the way the entire community has offered support was tremendously uplifting. But these veterans have been so special, building bridges between our communities.”